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    Uproar as Chinese Influencer Equates Liberal Arts With ‘Flattery’

    The remarks from the influencer, who has since apologized, have drawn support from some but also criticism from the media, academics, and education experts as being biased against liberal arts majors.

    Zhang Xuefeng, a prominent influencer in the world of Chinese education, has sparked controversy after making disparaging remarks about liberal arts majors. During a recent livestream, Zhang stereotyped all liberal arts majors as being part of the service industry, which he claimed was associated with flattery, and suggested such a career path would be demeaning.

    During the livestream, Zhang advised a high school student who was considering pursuing a liberal arts degree despite his proficiency in math. “All liberal arts majors are categorized as the service industry ... and if one word were to summarize the service industry, it would be ‘flattery,’” Zhang said, offering a fake smile to emphasize his point in the clip that has since gone viral.

    “Don’t commit to a career of flattery for your entire life just because of your current perception of a university’s reputation,” stated Zhang, who has more than 23 million followers on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. 

    Shortly after his comments, a related topic surged to the top of the trending list on the microblogging platform Weibo on Saturday, attracting over 340 million views. While several users agreed with Zhang, the remarks also drew a barrage of criticism from the media, academics, and senior corporate executives, who denounced them as discriminatory and biased against liberal arts majors. 

    “His words may be extreme, but they offer valuable insight, particularly for children from ordinary families,” commented one user. Another said: “He hasn’t said anything wrong.” 

    However, Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, criticized Zhang’s comments for misleading students and contradicting the principles of effective career counseling. “Every discipline has its value. We should not belittle or criticize another discipline to gain attention. Doing so will only create divisions,” Xiong told Sixth Tone. 

    Another hashtag, “Liberal arts students shouldn’t belittle themselves,” gained traction on Weibo on Sunday. The thread on the microblogging platform saw a mix of opinions: Some recognized the value of liberal arts, while others expressed concerns about the limited career opportunities and potentially unsatisfying pay in such fields.

    Responding to the uproar in a Saturday post, Zhang offered an apology for the controversy but stood by his assertion that the flattering nature of service work was an objective observation. 

    “I just want to remind individuals who perceive some majors as prestigious to consider the true nature of these disciplines, especially during the early stages of their career,” he stated in an accompanying post. “There’s no need to take what I said in the wrong way. If my words have upset anyone, I apologize.”

    Zhang, a graduate in water supply and drainage engineering who transitioned to tutoring students for postgraduate entrance exams, rose to prominence in 2016 after a video highlighting his expertise on Chinese elite universities went viral. Now 39, he has labeled himself as an instructor and provides consulting services for selecting a college major and career planning.

    This isn’t the first time that Zhang’s comments on education have caused a stir on social media. According to domestic media reports, he appeared on the Weibo trending list sixteen times in June alone. That same month, Zhang sparked controversy with a speech undermining the journalism major, claiming that it would be preferable to choose any other major. 

    Editor: Apurva. 

    (Header image: Zhang Xuefeng speaking to students in Henan University of Technology, Zhengzhou, Henan province, March 3, 2017. IC)